LINK WRAY AND THE RAY MEN – Rock and Roll Pioneers –
By Greg Laxton
Although he received the lion’s share of the accolades, guitar legend Link Wray was actually powered by three cogs in one machine. Brothers Vernon and Doug Wray were instrumental (pun intended) in helping to make Link Wray what he became – the founding father of rock and roll guitar.
Garage, punk rock, grunge, heavy metal, rock guitar in general…they can all trace their roots to Link Wray.
The Wray Brothers came from humble beginnings in Dunn, North Carolina. Sons of half-Shawnee street preachers, the brothers had a hard life. The first decade of their life was spent in poverty. Link put it best when he said, “Elvis came from welfare, I came from below welfare.”
The family lived near the local fairgrounds in Dunn. When Link was 8, he scrounged up brother Vernon’s guitar and was sitting on the family porch trying to hammer out a few rudimentary chords. A traveling African American carny worker who went by the name of “Hambone” happened by and taught Link the sound of the blues. When Hambone began to play some bottleneck slide guitar, Link knew then what he wanted to do.
In 1942, the family headed North to the shipyards of Portsmouth Virginia where Link’s daddy had found work. The beginnings of the Ray Men came to be when the brothers form a band and played Western Swing – or as Link put it, “rock and roll before it was rock and roll.” In the Navy town of Portsmouth, there seemed to be a bar or club on every corner, providing plenty of opportunities for work.
The band consisted of brothers Vernon on vocals and rhythm guitar, Link on lead guitar, Doug pounding the skins and “cousin” Brantley “Shorty” Horton playing doghouse bass. For a short time, Dixie Neal played pedal steel. Dixie’s brother was Jack Neal of Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps.
Band names changed according to the venues they played… Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Gang… Lucky Wray and the Lazy Pine Wranglers and a couple more. (“Lucky” was Vernon, who had picked up his moniker from his success at the local card tables).
Always the entrepreneur, Vernon held the first taxi license in Portsmouth. Vernon and Link drove a cab during the day – nights were spent honing their craft.
In 1953, the brothers were invited to play as part of a tribute show in Montgomery Alabama. It was there they saw Curtis Gordon perform, and the girls going wild. Curtis wasn’t playing country, he wasn’t playing the blues…Link and Vernon concluded “there’s something happening here.” The boys arrived home and continued to experiment recording some new sounds.
The band, minus Dixie, headed to Washington DC in 1955. During that time, the DC area was a hotbed of country music. They shared the stage with the likes of Roy Clark, the Jaguars (featuring a young rocker named Charlie Daniels), Marvin Rainwater, Patsy Cline and many more all throughout Washington DC and Southern Maryland.
1956 saw the first rumblings of the brothers on wax, with rockabilly and country sides from Lucky on Starday Records, and Link’s first vinyl etchings on Kay, a record company run by Ben Adelman who was the owner of Empire Studios in Washington. Link’s first record was was a split EP featuring two early rockabilly recordings by Link – “Johnny Bom Bonny” and “I Sez Baby”. These records were released when the band was in DC, but the recordings came from those home recording sessions in Portsmouth in 1953!
The band’s career was interrupted when Link and Doug came down with tuberculosis and were placed in a TB hospital in Maryland. Link had picked up the disease during his stint in the Army during the Korean War. He passed it along to Doug.
With Link and Doug in the hospital with TB, Vernon struck out as a teen idol, landing a recording contract with Cameo Records. He was renamed Ray Vernon by the powers-that-be and molded as a pop singer in the Pat Boone / Perry Como vein. From here on, family and friends refer to Vernon as “Ray.”
Doug would fully recover from his bout with TB. Link’s condition was far more serious. His odds were not good. Link recalls, “I was coughing up blood in the death house. They were waiting for me to die”. When doctors concluded the only way to save his life was surgery, the family rallied and everyone prayed. Link pulled through, but his bout with TB cost him a lung. The docs told him to stick to playing a guitar and forget about singing. Link told ‘em “it will take a higher power than you to tell me that.”
Link was able to get a medical pass from the hospital to play guitar on brother Vernon’s Cameo sessions. This resulted in Vernon’s hit “Evil Angel” and “Remember You’re Mine” (alternately released with the flip side “I’ll Take Tomorrow Today” in 1957). Pat Boone took “Remember You’re Mine” to greater success a short time later.
Link worked tirelessly to build up his health and singing voice while also refocusing on his guitar work. Link’s experimental guitar sound became the anchor of the band, now rechristened “Link Wray and the Ray Men.” Matched with Doug’s heavy drumming and Vernon’s production work, the brothers found that “something new” they first recalled back at that Hank Sr. tribute concert.
Like many bands in DC, Link and the Ray Men were taken under the wing of Milt Grant. Milt was the host of “The Milt Grant Show,” a record hop broadcast daily after school on WTTG-TV in Washington. The Ray Men were regulars, later becoming the house band and performing countless times on the show. Vernon hosted when Milt was out of town, and later had “The Ray Vernon Show,” weeknights at 7:30.
Link struck gold – a gold record – with the instrumental “Rumble”. The legend of “Rumble” is a curious one. Link himself has told varied stories of how “Rumble” came about. The most popular may be the story of Link and the Ray Men backing up The Diamonds at a Milt Grant Record Hop. According to Link, Milt asked the band to play the Diamonds hit “The Stroll”. Link told Grant, “I don’t know no stroll.” Brother Doug started hammering a stroll beat and Link has said it was then that his “Jesus God” zapped “Rumble” into his head. On impulse, Vernon mic’d the amps. The kids went wild and they played the song four times that night.
As legendary as that story is, historical records reveal the record hop was held on July 12, 1957. No mention of The Diamonds appearance can be found in any available advertisements for the Record Hop that night. Perhaps a bit more accurate is the story Link told to a UK magazine in 1978 –
“I was doing all these record hops for the kids with my brother doing most of the singing. One night in Fredericksburg Virginia a few of the kids got together and decided to do a little fighting. I started playing these notes as sort of a joke but the kids came up to me afterword and said, ‘Hey I like that sound, play it again.’”
“So I started playing and developing it until it sounded pretty good. The kids started asking for it because they liked it, so I went into the studio and recorded it. “
“Actually my brother was recording for Cameo Records at the time so at the end of one of his sessions I just went in and recorded two songs, “The Rumble” and a flip side “The Swag” – it cost 57 dollars.”
This timeline would mean that “Rumble” was recorded at the end of Vernon’s Cameo session for the rockabilly rave-up “I’m Countin’ On You” and the flip “Terry (You’re Askin’ Too Much).
The working title of the tune was “Oddball.” The fellas were always experimenting – pencil holes were punched in the tweeters of Link’s amp, in an effort to duplicate that “dirty sound” they got on stage with the mic’d amplifiers that night in Fredericksburg. This historical session marked the first recording of intentional distortion in rock and roll. He didn’t know it then, but with “Rumble”, Link Wray invented the “power chord” – the key element popular in many styles of rock and roll.
Grant shopped the demo recording to Archie Bleyer of Cadence Records. He hated it, but his teenage daughter loved it. The song was renamed “Rumble” as Archie’s daughter said it reminded her of West Side Story.
Rumble – an instrumental – was banned in Boston and New York for being “too suggestive,” and for fear that it would incite teenage gangs to fight. Dick Clark wouldn’t mention the title of the song when the band played it on American Bandstand. (You can’t get much more “rock and roll” than that!)
Fearful that Link and the Ray Men would corrupt the morals of American youth, Archie Bleyer was done with them after “Rumble.” They moved on to a major label deal with Epic Records resulting in the now classic “Link Wray and the Wraymen” LP. Vernon continued to work with the Ray Men, but having opened a recording studio few years earlier, he moved “behind the scenes” as the band’s manager and producer of their recordings.
The band had a chart hit with “Rawhide,” but Link tired of Epic’s efforts to clean him up and put him in a Duane Eddy mold. Link said at one point Mitch Miller put him in front of a 40 piece orchestra – it took him half an hour to find his guitar. So the Ray Men walked away.
The brothers then formed one of the first “do it yourself” record labels – Rumble Records – in 1961. Vernon moved his recording studio from Washington DC down to his spread off Livington Road in Accokeek Maryland in December 1962. First stop was in the basement of Vernon’s home.
Some of the Ray Men’s most prolific work happened in the mid 1960’s at Vernon’s home in Southern PG County. At the end of each night’s gig in and around Washington, the band regrouped in Accokeek and recorded until daybreak.
All of Link’s classic songs were recorded there. While the band was on the road, Vernon was fast becoming the “Sam Phillips of DC,” as too many musicians to count spent time with the tape running in Accokeek.
Too busy (and too loud!) for his wife Evelyn, Vernon moved the studio across the street in a building that housed Wray’s Market (always the entrepreneur…). Finally and most famously, the studio ended up in an outbuilding on the property and was christened “Wray’s Shack 3 Tracks”.
From the mid 1960’s to 1970, Link Wray was a regular at many clubs, fire houses, high schools and other functions in and around St. Mary’s, Charles and Calvert Counties. In one such interview Link has mentioned the “Two Thieves Club, down by the water”. (If anyone remembers this place, please get in touch!)
In 1970, the brothers were “rediscovered” and each signed to a 3 record deal with Polydor. For reasons yet to be determined, the only contract honored was Link’s, resulting in his “back to the roots” critically acclaimed LP, “Link Wray.” This record, like everything else, was a family affair with Doug playing drums as well as some acoustic guitar. Vernon handled the recording, back-up vocals and some rhythm guitar work.
“The Shack” was a busy place. The last recordings in Accokeek saw major label interest – Mordecai Jones and Link’s solo debut on Polydor Records, as well as the UK issued “Beans and Fatback”, studio outtakes of the “Link Wray” LP.
In 1972, Link and Vernon headed west to Tucson to “mellow out” and become one with the earth. Brother Doug stayed behind and continued cutting chops at his successful barbershop in Waldorf MD, while still playing gigs at local clubs. He passed away in 1984.
Realizing what a special place “The Shack” was, Vernon had chopped off the back wall and took it with him to Arizona as a talisman of sorts. He used the wall to reconstruct The Shack and then continued his production work with Tucson musicians. He also wrote jingles for local businesses and released his final two recordings – “Superstar At My House” and “Wasted.” Now incredibly rare, these recordings command top dollar among collectors. Vernon also pursued an acting career, landing parts in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and four episodes of “Gunsmoke”. He passed away in 1979.
After completing his contract with Polydor, Link hooked up with another DC musician, rockabilly singer Robert Gordon in 1977. This resulted in two major label LPs, “Robert Gordon with Link Wray” and “Fresh Fish Special” as well as world tours. Photographers missed one of the best moments in rock and roll history when both Bob Dylan and punk rocker Sid Vicious met Link backstage at a UK gig to pay homage.
In 1979, Link struck out on his own and never looked back. Shortly thereafter, Link moved to Denmark. He returned to the states for a tour in 1985. Link eventually relocated permanently to Denmark where he continued to record and sporadically tour overseas. He would not come back to the states for a dozen years.
Throughout the 90’s, Link Wray found new fans with his music being featured in such big budget movies as Desperado, Independence Day, Pulp Fiction, 12 Monkeys, This Boy’s Life and others.
1997 saw Link return to American soil with the release of a new studio LP, a club tour and a return to national TV, with appearance on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” almost 40 years after playing “Rumble” on “American Bandstand.”
The beginning of the 21st Century saw the release of “Barbed Wire,” Link’s last LP – and one of the most interesting of his career. It featured “Link unplugged” – several cuts of just Link’s vocals and an acoustic guitar – half a century after the TB doctor told him he’d never sing again.
Link continued to return to the states every year or so for the remainder of his life, playing his “wild rock and roll.” He toured until the end, playing 40 dates in the states in 2005. He passed away at 76 in November of that year.
Though the main players in this story have passed, interest in Link Wray and the Ray Men is stronger than ever.
Link has been recognized as one of the “100 Greatest Guitarists” by Rolling Stone magazine. Guitar Player magazine cited “Rumble” as one of the Top 50 “guitar sounds” of all time.
Link and the Ray Men have been inducted into the following Halls of Fame – the Washington Area Music Association, Southern Legends and the Native American Music Hall of Fame. There is a petition drive underway to get Link inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2009, Link and the Ray Men’s “Rumble” was added to the National Recording Registry by the National Recording Preservation Board, housed in the Library of Congress.
In 2010, brother Link was a featured artist in “Up Where We Belong” – an exhibit housed in the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of the Native American Indian in Washington, DC. This exhibit featured an ultra rare video featuring a performance of the original Ray Men – Link, Doug, Shorty and Vernon – that has not been seen since it was first broadcast over half a century ago on American Bandstand. This exhibit is currently on display in New York.
2011 brought the re-release of Vernon’s final work “Wasted.” As with the original issue, it’s limited to 1000 vinyl LPs.
Link and the Ray Men have influenced the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Pete Townshend and thousands of guitarists the world over. Neil Young has said if he could travel back in time to see one band it would be Link Wray and the Ray Men.
More recently, a highlight of the award winning documentary “It Might Get Loud” features Jimmy Page citing Link as an influence as he spins a 45 of “Rumble” and turns back into a 16 year old kid playing air guitar in his music room.
What does the future hold for Link Wray and the Ray Men? A documentary is currently in production and a movie is rumored to happen. Long lost recordings have been unearthed, and may be released in the not too distant future. Link Wray and the Ray Men just keep rumblin’ on!
For more on Link Wray – www.LinkWray.com For more on Vernon Wray – www.VernonWray.com Sign the petition! www.InductLinkWray.com